HARLEM — The Red Lobster set to open on 125th Street is likely to be one of the chain's highest-grossing locations, senior executives told local leaders Thursday — marking the latest example that business on the historic street is booming.
"This project in Harlem has the capacity to be our signature restaurant of the 700 we operate in the United States," said Darryl "Chip" Wade, executive vice president of operations for Red Lobster.
The restaurant, scheduled to go up next to the Apollo Theater, is set to open in November.
The announcement was made Thursday at the annual meeting of the 125th Street Business Improvement District, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year as well as the 200th anniversary of 125th Street being added to the street grid.
And with projects such as the two-story Red Lobster, a new retail complex at 125th Street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard, and plans for a hotel, the Urban League headquarters, Whole Foods and a brewery, business has been good.
There is an estimated $1 billion in real estate development planned for 125th Street that will bring 1 million square feet of space, said Blondel Pinnock, president of Carver Bank's Community Development Corporation and chair of the BID.
"A lot of things are happening on 125th Street and it couldn't come at a better time, especially since we have a few more years of the worst recession this country has seen remaining," said Comptroller John Liu, who is also running for mayor. "That didn't happen arbitrarily or on its own. It was a concerted effort."
Barbara Askins, who has served as president and CEO of the BID from the start, received a lot of credit for working to drive that change.
Askins introduced a new campaign called "Connect the Dots," which looks to bring together marketing and public relations executives for the businesses along 125th Street to create innovative marketing programs to connect east, west and central Harlem and promote the street's five major strengths of, shopping, entertainment, culture, dining and education.
Helping Askins to introduce the campaign was one of the ideas she is hoping will catch on with merchants — a virtual version of herself called a virtual mannequin. The technology used to project a version of her, which she named "Virtual Barbara," could be used by merchants to promote their stores or to help guide tourists.
Touch screens could also be put in stores so customers can access sales information without going inside.
"The idea is to promote small businesses," said Yvan Kashanian of Virtual Connection Corp., which produces the system, one of which was located in Port Authority Terminal for four years.
The information could include sales or general information about 125th Street such as upcoming events.
"The window of any store can serve as a kiosk," Kashanian said.
In addition to using new technologies to promote 125th Street, the BID is also looking to grow.
The district currently stretches from Morningside Avenue to Fifth Avenue. Askins said the goal is to span the length of 125th Street, river to river. Merchant-organizing efforts are underway from the Hudson River to Morningside Avenue.
Other improvements include the BID's boundaries receiving the first new LED lights in the city later this year and a retail study.
The usual pull between maintaining 125th Street's vibrant culture amidst the arrival of national chain stores and hotels was also discussed.
Though audience members were impressed when Wade said Red Lobster would bring 200 jobs to 125th Street and would help produce the next generation of executives managing stores with an average income of $4 million, there were still tough questions from the crowd about how those who live in the neighborhood would benefit.
Someone questioned how many of the jobs would be full time, how many management positions might become available and the starting wages of the couple of hundred people who would work at the store.
Wade didn't provide any solid answers but spoke of a management-training program and said the wage scale varied based on position — responses that did not satisfy everyone.
Lucille McEwen, executive director of the Manhattan Valley Development Corporation, questioned the wage scale at the Red Lobster, saying she feared the jobs would be low-wage, part-time positions, forcing workers to rely on tips and leaving them without healthcare and other benefits.
"I'm happy Red Lobster is coming and I believe that any job is a good job. But it's very important that we understand up front what he wages will be," McEwen said.
Still, Askins said the chance to move into management and the traffic that the restaurant would add to the already-busy streets are good for Harlem.
Robert Hernandez, a business banking officer with Popular Community Bank, said the question of community benefit has been around since the plans were created decades ago to facilitate 125th Street's transformation.
"It's like, 'Wow, we did it. But did we really do it? Does the community benefit?'" Hernandez said. "They are good questions to keep asking."